Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Pene Pati and The Elixir of Love

San Francisco Opera's final show of the fall season is a sunny, genuinely funny production of The Elixir of Love (L'Elisir d'Amore), Donizetti's 1834 village comedy that my friend James Parr likens to a successful Hallmark Channel rom-com. The production is from Opera North in the UK, and is brilliantly directed by Daniel Slater collaborating with choreographer Tim Claydon. The original 19th century Italian farm village has been updated to a hotel in a 1950s Italian coastal village, which mostly works just fine, since the characters are so archetypal that they could fit into just about any setting or time. (All photos by Cory Weaver and Kristen Loken.)
The excitement of the production is tenor Pene Pati as Nemorino, the country bumpkin with a heart full of love. Pati is an ethnic Samoan from New Zealand who came to San Francisco Opera's Merola and Adler programs for young singers in 2013. The few times I heard him over the years he had a huge, beautiful voice that didn't seem to be quite under control. Since those student years, he has been carving out a career in Europe while learning the operatic repertory and the finishing school has evidently paid off. His current vocal control and gorgeous, effortless sounding tenor is a pure sensual pleasure to experience live, and there is an easy freedom to his singing that is remarkable.
Plus he's funny, a wonderful physical comedian who connects directly with the audience while staying in character. The love potion elixir of the title is actually just Bordeaux wine, so the opera is filled with a lot of drunk humor, which Pati dispatches with the grace of a silent film comedian. His attempt at looking suave while stretched out on a stairway before his beloved, only to clumsily bounce down the stairs, was perfection. Pati debuted in this role at the Paris Opera, and it feels tailor-made for him. As he notes in a program interview, "Before even the music, what appealed to me was that character of being fun, being vulnerable, being innocent. The attributes of Nemorino are so me!"
The chorus is a major presence in the opera, and each chorister has been assigned individual characters. They also have a lot of simple Broadway-style choreography from Claydon to perform, and they look like they are enjoying themselves immensely while sounding musically superb. In the minor part of Giannetta, Arianna Rodriguez suddenly has a lot to sing in the final scene, including the telling of a secret to the entire crowd while swearing them to secrecy. Rodriguez was so effervescent that she threatened to run away with the show, but instead ran off with a sailor.
Slávka Zámečníková plays Adina, the beautiful, higher-class woman who is the object of Nemorino's sighs and longings. She looked smashing in the 1950s costumes and sang in a pure, almost icy soprano that made her character often seem cruel rather than an even mixture of haughty and kind. She is an engaging actress, though, who made the Hallmark Channel happy ending work.
Baritone David Bizic felt miscast as Belcore, the blowhard military stud who is convinced that he is god's gift to women. It can be a charming, funny role for a sexy young baritone but in this production Bizil never felt like any serious competition for Adina's favors.
The role that is written to be a scene-stealer by librettist Felice Romani is Dulcamara, a traveling con man who is selling phony remedies for every ailment under the sun, including being unloved. Renato Girolami was just fine, but the true scene-stealer was his assistant, the 13-year-old supernumerary Aidan Politza. His easy grace onstage, whether handling complicated props or dancing with Dulcamara, was endlessly amusing. Bravo. And bravo to debuting conductor Ramon Tebar leading the SF Opera Orchestra who made one of Donizetti's best scores sparkle all afternoon. There are two more performances with Pati singing, on Tuesday, December 5 and Saturday, December 9, and you should really try to catch one if you can.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The California Festival at the SF Symphony

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Music Director of the SF Symphony, doesn't usually talk to the audience before conducting, but during a Sunday matinee concert a couple of weeks ago, he gave a long, funny introduction to his own composition, the 2021 kinema. Salonen described how he was homebound in Finland during the Covid pandemic looking out at the Baltic Sea, feeling despondent, watching too many news channels on TV, and unable to work on anything. Eventually, he was contacted by a filmmaker acquaintance who asked him to write a score for a Finnish romantic film called Odotus, "which seemed like a good task to get my mind working again. The only problem was that about 40% of the movie was sex scenes for which my musical training had not quite prepared me."
Salonen refashioned the soundtrack into five movements for clarinet and a large contingent of strings, adding new music to what he had already composed. The soloist here was the SF Symphony's principal clarinet player, Carey Bell, and the moody 30-minute piece was surprisingly easy and beautiful to hear, especially considering Salonen's usual complexity when he composes for a large orchestra.
Carey Bell gave a virtuosic, seamless performance, though he seemed ill at ease whenever he was not actually playing his instrument, fiddling with the holes outside and cleaning out the interior between movements. At one point, he actually looked like he was going to hyperventilate, but the crisis was averted and he was greeted with a standing ovation when he finished the demanding assignment.
This concert was part of the first California Festival showcasing new classical music performed by 100 different ensembles throughout the state. The 28-year-old, Bay Area composer Jens Ibsen was commissioned for a work by the SF Symphony as part of its "Emerging Black Composers Project." In a long introduction, he talked about his love of "prog rock," and how he wanted to incorporate its sound and rhythms into a full orchestra. "I've often written music where I've had the orchestra sound like electronic music, but this time I wanted to integrate the real thing, so this is basically a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra." Composed this year, Drowned in Light is a fun, noisy ride that morphs into a serene, delicate twilight sound in the second movement.
The electric guitar soloist was hidden in the back of the orchestra below the percussion, which was too bad because Travis Andrews of the avant-garde The Living Earth Show duo, was fabulous and it would have been fun to watch him perform up close.
The final work was Stravinsky's 1942 Symphony in Three Movements, a short, hard-driving piece written during World War Two. Though I am loving Salonen as the new SF Symphony Music Director, his predecessor Michael Tilson Thomas made a better case for this gnarly symphony four years ago in 2019 (click here).

Monday, November 13, 2023

Omar at SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera is having an historic season. Among the eight operas they are performing this fall and next summer, three are new, written within the last five years and co-comissioned by the company. Omar, the second opera of this trilogy, opened last week and it's a stunning show about the physical and spiritual journey of Omar Ibn Said, a West African Muslim scholar at the beginning of the 19th century who is kidnapped into American slavery for the next 60 years. (production photos by Cory Weaver)
The composer and librettist is Rhiannon Giddens, a 46-year-old polymath musician from North Carolina. She collaborated in its orchestration with the 61-year-old Michael Abels who has been writing classical concert music for decades but only recently became well-known for his soundtracks for Jordan Peele's arty horror films. Besides being a successful pop singer, Giddens is a noted archaeologist of American folk music and its immigrant roots, convincingly evangelizing for the inclusion of Africa as a major source.
Omar contains a monster gumbo of different musical styles, from operatic to gospel to folk, but they work together smoothly and the music stays consistently engaging for three hours. Plus, it is such a welcome change to have black artists exploring black roots music for a classical music audience rather than white artists plundering the same mine for most of the 20th century.
The opera was commissioned for the Spoleto Festival 2020 in South Carolina but the pandemic upended everything so its premiere was at Spoleto Festival 2022. Afterwards, the opera traveled to the LA Opera where the production was super-sized, brilliantly. Another polymath artist, Christopher Myers, was the production designer and his work is masterful, some of the most striking designs I've seen on a stage. That goes for the rest of the production team too: Set Designer Amy Rubin, Costume Designers April M. Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown, Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago, and Projection Designer Joshua Higgason.
I tend to avoid stories concerning the Holocaust and American slavery because they seem too massively horrible to be considered as entertainment. The first act of Omar, with its brilliantly staged Middle Passage sequence, should be rough on the conscience of any white American, particularly since this history is still being officially repressed here 200 years later. The second act is cheerier, however, with square dancing, a "good" plantation master, and lots of theology centering around The Word.
The cast is strong throughout, anchored by the young tenor Jamez McCorkle as Omar. He has been singing the role around the country since its debut in Spoleto, and he projects a spiritual stolidity throughout all his trials that feels genuinely powerful.
Taylor Raven was resplendent as Omar's mother Fatima, who is killed in the first scene but appears through the rest of the opera as a fabulous ghost...
...while soprano Brittany Renee brought some sunshine as fellow slave Julie who helps Omar survive.
The four roles for evil and good white characters were divided between two singers, tenor Barry Banks as the Slave Auctioneer/Liberal Friend and baritone Daniel Okulitch as the Evil Master/Good Master. They both did great jobs as characters who the audience couldn't help but despise, and appear in the penultimate scene where the "good master" is insisting that his new educated house slave, Omar, become a Christian and leave his "false god."
What nobody but Omar seems to realize is that Islam recognizes Moses and Jesus as true prophets, but that Mohammed had received the latest word from God. The opera begins with a long prayer to Allah that bookends a long finale where The Word of the Bible, Psalm 23, is transformed and superseded by a prayer from The Word of the Koran. The chorus meanwhile has spread itself throughout the auditorium, surrounding the audience in sound. The ensuing musical transcendence was real and well earned. Also, though there are many explicitly Christian scenes throughout the history of Western Opera, and a few Jewish ones, I have never heard Islam used positively this way in an opera house before. On the third, Saturday night performance, the house seemed to be sold out and the audience was liberally sprinkled with what looked like much of the Bay Area Muslim community. The word has gotten out.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

What Matters at SFMOMA

Two wildly successful Japanese artists are currently having exhibitions at different San Francisco museums this fall: Takashi Murakami at the Asian and Yayoi Kusama at SFMOMA.
We walked quickly through SFMOMA's Third Street lobby because there is a large screen installed over the coat check room showing Wu Tsang's 2022 video art piece Of Whales. From what I have seen of the looping, two-hour, digitally animated video over the last few months, it somehow manages to make whales boring which I had not thought possible. The real problem is an endlessly irritating musical soundtrack, credited to Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda, which sounds like a combo of Kenny G, electronic bloops, and banal film music.
When I asked employees if the new, recurring soundtrack for their work lives was annoying, the responses have ranged from diplomatic smiles to eyes rolling right out of their heads. There must have been staff pushback because there is now a small note on the SFMOMA website which states: "The volume of this work is lowered during non-peak hours. To experience it at normal volume, please visit between 1–4 p.m. Friday through Tuesday, or on Thursdays from 1–7 p.m." The installation is scheduled to remain in the lobby through December 2025, by which time a few front-line employees may have gone mad.
Upstairs on the fourth floor, there is a new curatorial concept called What Matters: A Proposition in Eight Rooms, which the website blurb describes as "thought-provoking contemporary works from the museum’s collection that offer individual artistic responses to questions about life and art. These works propose engagements with both physicality and the ephemeral, addressing tangible matter of artistic media as well as urgent subject matters. Presented across eight rooms, What Matters addresses materials, conditions of space and architecture, and, most importantly, social relations."
It doesn't get more vague and artspeak than that, and the installations didn't spark much interest on their own, with the exception of ...three kings weep..., an eight-minute Jamaican video from 2018 by Ebony G. Patterson. Three men cry and get dressed in a backwards running, hypnotic film.
On the sixth floor, there is a huge Yayoi Kusama sculpture, Aspiring to Pumpkin's Love, the Love in my Heart, created this year.
Yayoi Kusama is 94 years old, and according to Hanna Schouwink of David Zwirner Gallery, Kusama is "officially the world's most successful living artist". I had never heard of Kusama before but her Wikipedia entry is astonishing. She left Tokyo in 1957 for New York City and was in the middle of every avant-garde art movement there for the next 15 years. Warhol and Oldenburg outright stole a few of her sculptural innovations, and upon her return to Tokyo in 1972, she was despondent and suicidal. Kusama then entered a mental institution for "art therapy," where she has been living and working for the last 50 years.
SFMOMA is exhibiting two of her Infinity Rooms, and the set-up for visiting them is a bit strange and rushed, with museum staff dividing the reserved ticket queue into groups of six to eight people.
You are then led into a small, cube-shaped room that is a conglomeration of mirrors and polka dots that do seem to stretch into infinity.
After two minutes in the first room, employees open the doors from the outside, and your group will be ushered into a second room with cooler colors and soft sculptures.
The museum might consider going full Disney and have their people movers wear polka dot uniforms during their shifts.
With only two minutes allowed in each room, the experience does not exactly make for contemplation of the infinite, but it's perfect for Instagram.
Down the hall on the sixth floor, Ragnar Kjartansson's nine-screen video masterpiece, The Visitors, continues to play on a loop in a room of its own. The Washington Post recently published a fabulous behind-the-scenes article about the making of the work with interviews of all the participants. They're calling it the ultimate zeitgeist artwork, on a par with Manet's Olympia or Picasso's Guernica. "The way Kjartansson’s immersive exhibit echoes and distills our gradual, vaccine-assisted transition from prolonged isolation to summertime resumption of social life is uncanny."